Here's a relatively simple wooden box that can be made without having to have a full workshop of expensive machinery.
The only power tool I used in making this was a Table Saw which I used for cutting the splines into the corners of the box. Pretty much everything else was done using hand saws, planes, chisels and sandpaper.
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Step 1: Wood Selection and Preparation
Whilst it might seem fairly simple to select the wood you’re going to use for your box, it’s worth taking a little time to think about how you want it to look when it’s finished. With just a little bit of planning and some simple layout tricks, your project can look fantastic and have some of the touches that tell others (particularly other Woodworkers) that this was made by someone who knew their craft.
For this project, I'm using some Fiddleback Jarrah and some Tiger Maple. Jarrah is a Western Australian Hardwood that is a beautiful dark, often reddish coloured wood. It's so hard, that even the local termites and white ants cant touch the stuff. It often has grain that changes direction constantly and can be a nightmare to try and smooth with a wood plane, however It also polishes up beautifully and this piece I’m using has some very clear "fiddleback" banding which should go nicely with the banding in the Maple.
I’ll not spend much time on wood preparation, but suffice it to say your material needs to be reasonably flat, with square ends and edges. For those who have a hand saw and a wood plane, I’d strongly suggest you take the time to make yourself a "Woodworkers Shooting Board". This simple tool, allows you to quickly and easily use a wood plane to square the ends and edges of your material in preparation for whatever you’re making. A Google search will find lots of commercial versions available, but for a fraction of the cost, why not make your own? I've included a picture of mine, which was little more than an afternoon's work.
One of the first steps, is to look over the wood you’re going to be using and find the best looking faces. These are the sides of the wood you want on the outside of the box and typically contain the best looking grain or wood features, and are the faces you’ll spend the most time sanding and finishing. Also select one edge to use as your reference edge, this is the edge you'll make any measurements or markings from.
Now's the time to sand each face of the board and to get things nice and smooth & flat. It's vastly easier to sand the board when it's laid flat on the bench than it will be when it's glued up into a Box shape.
I'd also suggest making up some Sanding Sealer to assist in preparing things. You can buy commercial sanding sealers, but it's really little more than diluted shellac. Buy some liquid White Shellac and dilute it with some methylated spirits (1 part shellac to 8-10 parts metho).
Sand the wood smooth with 240 grit paper and then wipe it over with the sanding sealer. Let it dry and then re-sand. The sealer hardens any stray wood fibres allowing them to be sanded off and also helps fill in some of the microscopic pores in the wood. Used later when finish sanding with 400 grit paper, you can sand the wood to a beautiful smooth surface which is ready for whatever finish you choose.
Step 2: Marking Out and Cutting
Now, we'll need to mark out the wood in such a way that the woodgrain, consistently "flows" around the box itself.
To do this, imagine you have a box on which you've consecutively numbered the sides and ends from 1-4, and then you "un-roll" the box so the ends and sides are all laid out flat. You'd end up with four pieces laid out next to each other in the following order: Side 1, then End 2, then Side 3 and finally End 4.
To plan our box, we need to mark up our wood in the same way. Working from left to right, I measured up the length of the first Side and marked that as "1", then measured an End piece and marked that as "2", then another side marked as "3" and then the final end which is marked as "4". Looking at your wood, from left to right, you’ll have Side 1, then End 2, Side 3 and finally End 4
The pictures show my pieces (after cutting) and you can clearly see my numbering, the top edge I've chosen and marked as my reference and also the ">" markings over the cuts which help in assembling everything into the correct order. I used a wax carpenters pencil to mark everything; these show up clearly, but they don't dent the wood and the marking easily can be easily sanded or wiped off.
Step 3: Cutting the Mitres
I decided that my box was going to have mitred corners (the edges are cut at 45 degrees so they fit together nicely), however you can make yours with pretty much any type of corners you choose.
If you're not overly familiar with woodworking, try Googling "Finger Joints", "Butt Joints", "Dovetail Joints", "Box Joints" etc. There are literally dozens of ways to make a wooden joint, some easy and others that take a lifetime to perfect.
Each piece is cut to length and the ends are squared off. Make sure you've got each piece numbered so you can assemble them correctly later.
To cut the mitres themselves, if you're lucky enough to have a router table you can machine them pretty quickly, however I used a 45 degree attachment I made for my Shooting Board. This is simply a frame that holds my wood plane at a 45 degree angle on the shooting board. It's not the fastest method, but it's simple and quite accurate (and rather cathartic if you're like me and prefer using hand tools). In the images, you can see the shooting board and the way the wood is held against the stop, and then another shot with the plane on place.
Before you begin cutting the mitres, make sure your material is correctly positioned, with the "inside" face of the box, facing upwards on the shooting board (for me, this means my numbering is face downwards). If you look back at the previous step where you could see my numbering of each piece, you'll see I use really large and clear numbers, with lots of arrows etc. There's no worse feeling than realising you've cut a mitre onto the wrong side of an end or side...
Step 4: Dry Fit and Then Then Get Ready to Glue
Once you've mitred the ends of each side and end piece, and checked that each par are still exactly the same length, it's time to get ready to assemble and glue things together. I'm using some corner clamps made by Woodpecker, however any corner clamping system would work.
If you don't have corner clamps, you can cover a square piece of wood with waxed or non-stick paper (oven paper works really well) and clamp your pieces against that.
Before gluing, I always make sure to dry fit the pieces together just to make sure everything is ready to go, there's nothing worse than having glue everywhere while frantically trying to adjust something or to reposition things.
When applying the glue, be sure to apply glue to both faces of the joint, so that each surface is completely covered by the glue. Don't add too much as it'll just make a mess when the excess is squeezed out, but you do need to ensure that each face is thoroughly "wet" or covered. Don't just assume that it'll spread when you clamp the joint - dry glue-joints are the most common form of failure in glued joints.
With regard to which glue to use, my suggestion would be to simply use any reputable brand of glue that is specifically used for woodworking. I tend to use the Titebond II and Titebond III glues, simply because they're relatively cheap, they wash up in water and they produce a joint that is stronger than the wood itself. Whilst you can get stronger glues, these can be problematic later on when sanding as the glue is so hard, it wont sand away at the same rate as the surrounding wood and can leave a "raised" glue line. They can also be a nightmare to clean up. The Titebond III is waterproof and so I tend to use that, however be aware it seems to dry slightly darker than the Titebond II.
Later, I'll use some Gorilla brand glue on the bottom of the box, but whilst incredibly strong, it's tricky to use and can make a mess that's difficult to clean up (more on this in a later step)
Step 5: Clamp, Check, & Re-clamp
Once everything has been tested for fit, your clamps are ready and adjusted and you think everything is good-to-go, then it's time to open the glue. Make sure to have a bowl of water with a rag in it ready for wiping down any excess, as well as another dry rag ready at hand. Keeping things clean and tidy makes clean-up and sanding much easier later
Once you've applied glue to the joints, apply your clamps and begin tightening things up. Take your time, work on one joint at a time and make sure everything is aligned and neat before you move onto the next joint.
I apply enough pressure on the clamps to just hold things in place and then begin checking everything is correctly aligned. A soft-faced hammer and a piece of soft wood can be used to gently tap things into the correct alignment - be careful not to damage the sharp ends of each piece when tapping them and gradually tighten your clamps as you go.
I prefer to glue the ends to one of the sides first and to let that dry. I can then glue the final side into place. I find this a little easier to manage because once things are coated with glue, you'll find everything becomes slippery and wants to move around. Tapping one joint tends to move another somewhere else, and you can easily find yourself making a mess and the glue beginning to dry. Far better to take your time and get everything right now.
Again, working on one joint at a time can also help in closing up gaps in a less than perfect joint. So long as you can clamp it tightly together, and there's sufficient glue to hold it together, any misalignment won't be obvious later.
Wipe off any excess glue with a damp cloth and use a ruler or something similar to wipe out any excess glue from the inside of the joint.
Step 6: Adding Splines Into the Mitre Joints
I then wanted to add the splines into the mitred corner joints. This strengthens them considerably and if a contrasting coloured timber is used, they can look quite decorative.
Mark out the places where you can the splines to go. With mine, I marked out a spline that'll end up in the lid of the box and a couple of others that'll be in the body of the box.
(Just in case it's not apparent, I'll make the lid for this box, by first adding the top and bottom pieces, and then running the whole box through the table saw, to cut the "Lid' away from the carcase. This way, I don't need to make a separate lid, the woodgrain will match, and the lid and the carcase will be exactly the same size).
To cut the splines I simply used a jig I made to hold the box as I pushed it through the table saw. If you look at the image, you'll see the jig is simply a basic frame that's glued & screwed together, which holds the box in the correct position. When cutting, the saw cuts through both the jig and the box (if you look carefully, you can see where I've made several cuts previously - eventually, I'll need to make a new one).
I then cut a strip of wood the same thickness as the saw cuts, which is then glued into place and then later trimmed flush.
Sometimes (if you're a little ham-fisted like me) you'll get a gap where the spline hasn't gone fully into the groove. Just cut a thin wedge shaped piece and glue that into the hole. Once cut off and sanded, it'll be invisible.
Step 7: Glue the Top Into Place
Unfortunately, I lost the images I took of adding the lid into the box, however it's not terribly complex. I cut a small rebate into the edge of the piece of Maple I was using for the lid and then rounded the corners over with a hand plane and some sandpaper. A router table would be perfect for this, but if you're patient and careful, not strictly necessary. The pictures show the end result and I've added a simple cross-section showing how the top fits into the sides.
This was glued into place using the same glue as I used on the corner joints.
Another method of adding a top is to cut a piece that overhangs the sides of the box by a 1/2" or so and then to cut a chamfer around the top.
Again at this stage. Its time to again get out the sandpaper and to clean things up. I use 240 grit to smooth out the worst flaws and marks, and I then use 400 grit to flatten everything off. An application or two of sanding sealer (diluted shellac) helps the process greatly.
Step 8: Cutting the Lid Away From the Carcase
I then cut the lid away from the carcase of the box on the table saw.
In retrospect, I wish I'd done this by hand. The Jarrah is so hard that my small saw struggled to get through it (look carefully at the first picture and you can see where the wood is burned) and I also had an error somewhere in my setup, and I had a couple of small "lips" where the different cuts met each other.
To repair my error, I used my 5 1/2 hand plane (a nice long bodied plane) to work my way around the top of the lid and carcase, gradually flattening it off. I finished the edges off by stapling some 240 grit sandpaper to some scrap chipboard. This was secured to my workbench and then the box pushed back & forth until everything was nice and flat. I used the same method to flatten the edges of the lid.
Step 9: Fit the Bottom Into the Box
To fit the bottom into the box, I simply roughly cut and then carefully planed a piece of wood to fit into the bottom.
If you look carefully, you'll see where I've marked the bottom and sides with pencil so that you don't accidentally rotate it as you're cutting it to size. I've yet to make a box that's perfectly square, so it's far easier to cut a piece of wood that fits the shape of the box, than it is to cut a square piece of wood and to try and make the box fit to it.
Because I wasn't intending to use nails or anything else, the glue I've used here is a polyurethane glue. There are many different brands available, but I tend to buy the Gorilla brand because they have nice small bottles. I've found it doesn't last long once it's been opened, so the smaller the bottle, the less I throw away.
As mentioned previously, I'm generally not a fan of these glues as they're a pain to clean up (they're not water soluble) and they dry so hard that they can be difficult to sand and finish. They do have one useful characteristic that I like and that is that the glue expands by about three times as it cures. This means it's perfect for gluing poorly-fitted lids into the bottom of boxes.
This glues requires moisture to help it set, so use a wet cloth to wipe down the surfaces to be glued, spread a SMALL amount of glue onto one surface and then fit and clamp the piece into place. As the glue sets, it "foams up" and expands to fill the joint.
When fully cured, I then used my hand plane and sandpaper to smooth everything down.
Step 10: Add Some Hinges and a Catch
Now is the time to finish off the sanding and smoothing out of any flaws.
Minor gaps and holes can be filled with coloured wax which works really well (available from most woodworking or hardware stores). Find a colour that matches the wood, or blend a couple of different waxes together to try and match the wood. You'll be surprised how effective (and invisible) this can be.
Another method of fixing gaps is to get sawdust from the same wood, mix it with some glue and then fill the holes. If you have an electric sander with a dust trap or bag, this is a great source of wood dust - if you don't want to use the sander on your box (please don't) get a piece of scrap of the same type of wood and simply sand away at this until you've caught enough dust to do the job.
Fit your hinges and a catch and you're ready for final finishing.
Your final finish is a matter of personal choice, but I tend to prefer an oil & wax finish. This works wonderfully well, is non-toxic, can be applied liberally over the catch and hinges and doesn't require anything other than a rag. As the box ages, a simple wipe over with a little oil on a cloth will bring it back to life. It'll never fade or peel or discolour, and if the box is a gift, you can enclose a small container of the oil with the box, but any oil will be fine.
This way, your box will look its best for years to come. Done well, something like this will last a couple of lifetimes.
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